Photoworks Interview

I was interviewed by Alice Compton for Photoworks a few weeks ago…Here’s the result

– I’ll begin by asking you how you started Cafe Royal Books (you touched on this in a previous email but please do elaborate if you wish)
I started Café Royal in 2005. I come from a Fine Art background, educationally speaking. I used to make large, time consuming, expensive, heavy abstract paintings. I only ever exhibited each twice – I didn’t like showing them any more than that, preferring to ‘move on’. Because they took so long to make (18 months), I felt I had to store and look after them. Their weight was a problem and meant that realistically they could only be exhibited in the UK. In every possible way my process was unintentionally limiting in terms of who could see my work. I decided to ‘quit’ painting and return to drawing. Over the next year I produced a lot of very quick, simple drawings and wanted to exhibit them, but in a way that didn’t rely on galleries as my painting did.
Books and zines seemed right. Affordable to produce, quick, easy and cheap to post anywhere in the world. The idea of ‘the multiple’ was appealing too having spent the previous ten years concentrating on single paintings. down the line a little, I began collaborating with artists, inviting them to submit work that was meant for a non-gallery space. That was around 2006.
– You publish a book a week, can you explain your process (working with the photographer/archive/designing/printing etc)?
I publish a book every Thursday. Simply, the process is either me researching, finding work and photographers to collaborate with or them proposing ideas to me. Many of the photographers I work with have vast archives, in various states of order! We discuss ideas and in many cases arrange a series of three books to be released over 18 months. I design all and edit most publications. Each book is slightly different; some photographers have a very exact running order, title, layout and tight edit. Others will send me 100 images for a 36 page book, leaving everything to me. Both methods work well and the change is refreshing. I do enjoy having to edit down from a larger selection – it’s a real pleasure. It’s a bit like a puzzle, slotting things into place to make sense of it all.
Printing. I use a local family run firm. I’ve used them for years, they understand what I want and they’re sympathetic to my fussiness! I visit them 3-4 times each week for proofs, finals, edits…It’s vital to have a good relationship with the printer, and to use a printer you can visit at short notice and discuss, face to face, the books being made.
-What’s your editorial policy? (Again you answered this before but do expand if you want)
I don’t have a fixed editorial policy. I think to do so would be too restrictive, at least in terms of this type of book. The mechanics: I prefer to publish work that hasn’t been seen / much, and not in the same context if it has been shown before. I will only publish work that I like. I publish books that I’d like to collect. I publish work in the same or similar format because I see it as an ongoing project and the books as a series. Work can be from archives but doesn’t need to be. I like to publish work that documents an aspect of change, generally but not exclusively in the UK. The photographers I work with don’t have to be well known. At this stage I have always worked directly with the photographer, except on one occasion. I think that is important; the conversation and to get more of an understanding of why the work exists.
Teaching full time, having two kids, making my own work all need time too so Café Royal, although being a full time job, has to be done in and around other things. It’s manageable but I have to be economical with time so tend to work a couple of months in advance, in batches, but know what will be coming 12 months in advance. Café Royal tends to be 7-9am and 5-9pm each day.
There is work submitted that I’d love to publish but that falls outside of the overall theme of ‘change’. As much as I dislike restriction in that sense, I think it’s important for me to remain focused because there’s only so much I can do.
I like to keep things simple. The books should be affordable to make and to buy, and straight forward in terms of hat they are. I made the decision a couple of years ago to put the colophon on the cover, so instantly you know who it’s by and what it is, the date and edition size. It has also, accidentally, created quite a strong identity which I think people like. They look like quite a coherent series on a shop shelf for example.
– You mentioned that you don’t include text that doesn’t add anything to the images, can you talk about one or two of your publications that needed or were complemented by text?
My main concern is photographs and perhaps narrative. I think my abstract painting past still plays a part in terms of my relationship with descriptive text. I would never title paintings because I wanted the painting to be read with no input, no bias  no signs or signifiers. I think the same, generally, about inclusion of text in the books. Most of what I publish is quite straight forward and doesn’t require text. Tony Bock, for example, likes text as a reference point, so we print the location of each photograph. John Darwell’s project was significant to him on a personal level in many ways, as well as being some his last mono work before turning exclusively to colour. The reader doesn’t necessarily need to know this but I don’t think that kind of information affects ones reading of the images ;it doesn’t really provide extra information, just surrounding information. Jim Mortram’s project in some respects falls outside of the ‘usual’ Café Royal subject matter, but I like his project and we gave a lot to charity. On a simple level I love the images; the blacks and the darkness. His books have included text, and that seemed right because the project could, and sometimes is taken the wrong way. It’s a difficult long-form project and does require some contextual information.
– Is there a body of work you’d really like to publish?
Yes and no. I don’t chase projects as such. I do chase work that I don’t know or that I haven’t seen. I love finding things out, researching, making connections…So the work I’d like to publish, I think, is that which I don’t yet know…A cliché perhaps?! There are a couple of things I’d like to publish actually by John Myers and Chris Killip. I have a secret list.
Something that kind of gives me a kick, is giving photographers a reason to revisit their archives. A lot, most photographers are working for ‘now’, which makes sense because they need to make a living. Homer Sykes for example works almost entirely from his archive now. His archive is one of the better presented and more organised ones, I assume for that reason. So most photographers have an archive of some kind, even if it’s a suitcase full of negs under the bed. Offering a publication (albeit a very small one and limited run) gives opportunity and reason to look back, sometimes the look back affects current work too. I get a lot of feedback from the people I collaborate with and the recurring  thing is the pleasure in being able to look back through past work, and often ‘leaving it to someone else’ to edit.
A secondary aspect is that the UK still falls behind in terms of gallery photographic collections. We’re not like America. So, as small as these books are, galleries collect them and so they are putting small bits of information into the gallery collections, libraries and archives. I realise they’re not photographic gallery prints, but it’s still getting the work in and rearchived in a publicly accessible institution. This has become an aim of mine really because I want people to see the work but that is contradicted by the small edition sizes. So the work then being placed in a public space means anyone can access them.
– How far do your editorial decisions reflect your own practice? Your interest in postwar architecture and distressed landscapes, for example? 
Café Royal has changed as my own practice has changed. From drawing to photography, for example. I’ve accepted, over time, that CRB is a part of my own practice, and vice-versa, whereas it started as just an outlet for my practice. A lot of my own work fits within what I want to publish, but not all of it does and some of my work I’d never put in a book. I receive a lot of submissions of work that focusses on post war architecture. However, because my work involves an ongoing study of that, in some cases the submissions would duplicate that, so I have to decline. It’s quite difficult but it’s a good problem to have. A lot of what I publish is work that I couldn’t make myself for various reasons; technical or because the place no longer exists for example. There’s no straight forward answer and really every submission I look at and every book is treated differently and individually.
– Whose work, of the photographers you’ve published, do you think deserves more recognition? 
That’s really difficult. I could put arguments forward for each individually!  Patrick Ward (forthcoming), Tony Bock, Stephen McCoy, Geoff Howard, George Plemper…I think each (and many others) have made important work and have documented significant points and aspects of British social history. I think each is recognised but perhaps not as widely as they should be. I’m working with Patrick Ward on a couple of books that use the Manplan photographs from Architectural Review in 1969-1970. Patrick’s work was in the first issue. The Manplan series was so daring at the time, kind of outrageous but so important. Patrick is well respected but I think that body of work, and the editorial courage of that series really needs looking at again.
A lot from the past, things that have just gone with no record. Recently I’ve been talking to Justin Leighton about Network Photographers. Such an important time of which there is no trace.
– Have you (excuse my ignorance if you have and will) published any work in colour?
I have published colour books and I’m always open to  colour submissions. Back, again, to when I painted; I only used whites and have always found colour quite difficult. I find colour can act as text can, as a suggestion where perhaps a suggestion is unnecessary or a distraction. I find it easier to ‘look into’ a black and white image where as with colour I ‘look at’ the image. Recently I’ve been working with colour a little more but it’s not often, with the work I publish, that I think colour benefits it in any way. However, I would never want someone to convert a project to mono for the sake of a Café Royal book.
-Tim Head is quoted as describing your books as ‘not only documenting historic images, but also becoming important historic documents themselves’ – why do you think this is? Is there something about the format/design/material/physical object that people really like? 
I don’t know. I’m not sure what drives people or attracts people to the books, but at the moment they are quite popular. As selfish or self indulgent as it seems, I make them for me, and publish what I like. I like the books to be accessible and well made. I like them to be honest, fuss free and free from extras and decoration. They’re simple things, only small and each is ‘a moment’. The price is pretty straight too. I like systems, order, function…

– In your opinion, what makes a great photo book? 

At risk of contradicting some of what I’ve already said…Each book should be determined by its content. Some use ‘the book’ as an object, and the function of the book fits the content. Hidden Islam by Nicolo DeGiorgis, for example. Gate fold sheets that open to show the inside of what is printed on the outside. A simple method but the content and the form working well together.
Then there’s books like Eamaon Doyle’s i, which is beautifully produced. The print quality is amazing, the binding and cover is just luxury…It’s a great book and over-the-top production wise but really works well. Holy Bible is produced completely in context and wouldn’t work any other way. I was lucky to take part in Moriyama’s print show at Tate. Menu, the book made on the day is as much a record of the day as it is a Moriyama book. It’s a bit clumsy but the surrounding factors and personal experience make it a strong book.
Moriyamas new Super Labo published Marrakech book in a slip case is great, a double book with infinite narratives.
Other than books which use a unique form; so standard type coffee table books, for example, I think if the book is coherent, and tells you something, and the photographs are good then it’s hard not to engage with it. Books like Ken Grant’s Flock, Peter Mitchell’s Strangely Familiar, Tom Wood’s Men and Women are all standard format (except perhaps the cover and end paper of Flock), but they document a specific thing, clearly, and the images are really great. Can’t ask for more than that I don’t think.

Interview for RRB Photobooks

I wrote this for RRB Photobooks, it was published on December 14th 2014.
Café Royal Books is ten next year. As happens in a decade, a lot has changed; some planned changes, some happenchance. The reason I started CRB was to enable me to disseminate affordably my own work, quickly, internationally, and to many places at the same time. I had spent the previous decade painting large abstracts which were prohibitive due to their size and weight, so decided to return to drawing for its simplicity and speed. ‘The book’ worked as exhibition spaces, and ‘the multiple’ as a ‘rapid fire’. The content of the books was unfocussed and production fairly DIY, but considered. The excitement was in the making and in using the book as a container.

Somehow, online mainly, word spread and I ended up collaborating with other artists, illustrators and some photographers, publishing their work as small editions of around 50 copies. Around 2006 my practice began to shift from pen to lens based, partly because I could work faster and more simply without as much ‘interference’ as happened with a pen / pencil; also because I started to value more the recording of information, possibly for the future. We had our first child around the same time which probably had an impact on my way of thinking. Of course, as my own practice and interests changed, so did what I wanted to publish. It wasn’t until around 2010-11 that I started to become more focussed and direct about what I was to publish, and about what I wanted to make in terms of my work outside of Café Royal.

There has always been a bit of a clash, time-wise mostly, between the things I do. I’m a full time lecturer on three separate degree courses. I make work, exhibit etc my photographs – generally focussing on Brutalist estates and the urban environment. I have two children, 3 and 6. Café Royal has become a full time business, still run out of a small room, and only me…It’s hard work but really enjoyable and it’s a privilege to work with so many artists and photographers.

What I do now is publish a book each week. I can’t possibly publish all the work I’d like to, so have to remain pretty focussed in terms of subject. The subject tends to be work that documents an aspect of change; social, architectural, geographical…I don’t know what drives people (or me) to take photographs of things. It’s a strange compulsion, but somehow there is a need. ‘Now’ is happening – people know ‘now’, so the photographs, to my mind at least, become something else when the ‘now’ has passed and is no longer accessible first hand. They gain historical value or importance perhaps.

My experience of working with photographers is that generally they work for ‘the now’ for various reasons. One is financial. We all need money and work and so are focussed on ‘the now’. Others, who have perhaps had their commercial career, may have other interests: books, travel for example. In most cases there are vast archives of work that are untouched, mainly because the photographer has no reason to touch them. Feedback from many collaborators has been that CRB has offered the photographer opportunity to revisit their much forgotten archives. This has sometimes led to a rethink of current work and to other opportunities for sales and exhibitions of older work. None of this is intentional, it’s not why I started Café Royal, but knowing that this occurs means a lot and has become an aim of what I do.

My books are inexpensive, both to produce and to buy, in comparison for example to a coffee table hard back. They are limited run, generally of 200 copies. The conflicts with my desire of getting this forgotten archive work seen by many. However, many galleries and museums now collect my books. They are in a lot of ‘special collections’, photobook collections, artist book collections, exhibitions and so on. This makes them publicly accessible, looked after, ‘locked in’. So essentially anyone can gain access to them without
owning them. This has become a strong element of what I do. To have the work collected by galleries is important, if for no other reason than to fill the gaps in UK gallery photographic archives, which are fairly slim. Of course there are other reasons. To know MoMA, Tate, V&A and other major international galleries want the books enough to collect them means a lot. To have many shops stocking them and to have so many customers from the website is priceless. To meet Peter Mitchell, Ken Grant, Martin Parr, Daido Moriyama and discuss books, their work, their past work is amazing. I think publishing has allowed me to do a lot that perhaps otherwise I wouldn’t have done.

I once lost all of my own books, collected over 30 years – about 800 books, in a flood. I now have a strange relationship with books – I make lots of them but am still fearful of buying too many. Publishing allows me to make the books I’d like to collect; albeit a strange way of going about it!

The future. I’d like to start a PhD but need to fine-tune the question. It might relate to some of the above. I want to continue to publish small affordable well produced books / zines showing moments of change. I see Café Royal Books as a kind of meeting point. I don’t just publish the work of well known photographers but I do only publish work that I like and often subjects or times that I couldn’t get access to myself. As long as it’s enjoyable I’ll continue. There’s a lot of important work that needs to be seen! In many ways I see what I do as a long term project, cataloging the not too distant past.

Recently I’ve started a new project, ‘Notes’, which will hopefully become a reference tool and work as contextual support for the books I publish.

The original article can be seen here.